This post is dedicated to my friend Jackie, who I have known for many years and who writes about her life history on her own blog. I probably won’t make a habit of it, but it was nice to get lost in a little nostalgia this week.
It’s been almost twenty years since I visited the Sistine Chapel and had my first lessons in expectation adjustment. I had been living in Prague teaching English and my mom and dad were concerned that I would be spending my first Christmas far from home totally alone. I think in their imaginations I was sitting in a dark communist block apartment building without a soul to talk to, huddled over an ancient radiator in fingerless gloves, hugging some cheap potato vodka wishing desperately I was back in the States. The truth was a little more complicated, and I was also slightly irritated that they thought I couldn’t handle a holiday on my own (albeit not so irritated that I wasn’t pleased to accept their generosity in bankrolling some holiday travel and company). They sent my younger sister Erin to be my travel companion. I had given careful packing advice, but she got off the airplane in Prague on a misty December day, wearing high –heeled sandals, a white blouse and cropped jeans. I’d estimate it was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I remember clearly there were patches of ice on the tarmac that she had to step over, me holding her up by the elbow as she gingerly teetered into the airport like a geriatric.
In order to counteract the jetlag, my plan was to go directly into town and keep her out way too late, one pub after another, ordering the mythic 35 cent pivo (it existed back then) and chatting up other expats. I was in no hurry to get back to the apartment I was renting because I was busy trying to extricate myself from a chaste and doomed romance I had impulsively started with the very cute, very traditional son of the family I rented a room from. He was an up-and-coming gynecologist (really) with traditional designs on me. By traditional I mean he was auditioning girls to be his wife. I was teaching in a suburb called Michle (Prague 4) and living in a beautiful little hilly district on the south edge of the city called Modřany (Prague 12) with Mirek’s family. He’d take me into Prague on the weekends and we’d do impossibly romantic things like wander through the Vyšehrad cemetery, holding hands and reading the tombstones of such Czech notables as Dvořák, Mucha and Jan Neruda. One weekend we crashed a wedding underway on the banks of the Vltava. We simply strolled right in to the festivities, started dancing, drinking and eating and no one was the wiser. It was magical. It was later when I realized I didn’t want a full-time Czech boyfriend that we started to run into problems. Also, though I was hardly a feminist, it concerned me in the abstract that he and his friends liked to quiz me about the ‘crazy feminist’ women of America. I was obviously more than ready for a trip abroad.
I executed my pub crawl plan and made sure she was practically sleeping sitting up before I brought her back to my place. Erin and I decided on a standard, American-style marathon whip-around Italy. I believe we had about ten days. We decided to spend Christmas in Venice and New Years in Rome. On our arrival in Venice, we realized we’d made a gross miscalculation. Like in the rest of the western world, Christmas is kind of a big deal for the Italians and therefore not much was open by way of tourist attractions. But no worries! We had also managed to stumble into Venice during one of the worst winters Italy had seen in twenty years, rolling into town just behind a terrible rainstorm that had rendered the city completely flooded about a foot under water in places. It had turned the already labyrinthe streets into something almost cartoonishly charming. I’m not sure if they still do this, but in times of severe rain the city would install tables (they stood a couple of feet off the floor) so you could walk above the flood. In the trickier parts of town, wooden boards were haphazardly slung across stairs, the centers buckling and creaking forbiddingly as locals stomped across, sometimes two and three people deep! It felt like a secret treat that not everyone would get to experience and instead of being annoyed by the weather we delighted in the strangeness of it.
We spent Christmas night with some Aussie and Kiwi guys in a freezing medieval convent-turned-hostel, having cobbled together a grocery store Christmas feast. Each time someone would make a run for more wine, it would take what seemed like hours. The problem was both the location and the drinking (difficult for a sober tourist, trying to navigate the back alleys of Venice while inebriated was next to impossible for a bunch of young drunks). We stayed up far too late drinking cheap Italian table wine. The Kiwis were of particular interest to me. At a time in my life when I was actively chasing the next party, they were in the midst of planning the ultimate Millennium New Year’s celebration. The idea was they’d charter a jet for all their friends and family back home in Auckland and would kick off the first party on the ground at midnight there. Then, the jet would take off for Los Angeles where they’d manage a second celebration just in time to officially ring in the New Year on two continents. Erin and I got our obligatory invite, the wine woozily infusing us both with a sense of optimism for these new friendships that would not last into the next week let alone 1999. Nonetheless, we planned to meet up with the Kiwis in Florence and I passed out on the stairwell sometime in the wee small hours of the morning of December 26th. Erin was tasked with putting me to bed in our dorm room on the top bunk. When we cleared out the next day, I realized someone had literally stolen my hat off my head in the night. I decided the thief must have needed it more than I did.
I was oddly disenchanted by Florence, not realizing prior to our arrival that the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance was a little drab up close and personal, with most of the art cloistered inside the various museums around the city. Again, no ill will toward Florence. It was December when we got there, so even the Ponte Vecchio was mostly closed for business. There was a sense that everyone was holed up at home. I have a couple of photo albums filled with images of myself or Erin bundled up in scarves and hats under various arches around the city. We made the classic rookie move of sitting down in the gelato shop and paid something like $8 American for our ice cream rather than taking it to go like a local. Though it would have cost us a fraction of the price, we later mused that walking around in the freezing weather would have been a less attractive option than sitting in the relatively warmer gelato parlour.
We decided to spend some of our precious budget to check out the Uffizi. The highlight of Florence (for me) was that particular museum trip. We chose to attend on a Wednesday, which was clearly a popular day for Italian high school field trips. We noticed early on while queuing up for entrance that we were getting a lot of furtive glances and whispers/giggles. At first, we ignored it/chalked it up to our American-ness (it really did get drummed into us back then how strange and otherworldly we’d seem) We were very naïve and over-invested in our own importance. It quickly became hard to pass off the sort of overwhelming attention we were getting as interest in the foreigner. Also, we had expected and prepared for the fact that Italian men would be giving us mostly unwanted attention, but schoolgirls? That was just weird. As we walked through the various galleries, we started to draw a crowd. Girls were peering at us around corners and tailing us. Finally, as we stood near ‘The Birth of Venus,’ one brave girl approached us and said (in very formal English with very red face) to my sister: “Pardon. Are you Alannis Morrisette?” To which I, in a feat of wit that I have never ever managed to replicate, without missing a beat solemnly said: “Yes. Yes, she is.” The girl fairly swooned and immediately we were engulfed in a small cloud of Italian girls. Erin was forced to answer many questions about Ms. Morrissette and I helped them along, encouraging her to answer gems like: “tell me. What means when you say ‘it’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife?” Yes. Tell us, Alannis. It was 1997. Alannis was huge in Italy. Finally, after about 20 minutes of picture taking and autograph signing, Erin and I looked at one another, burst into a kind of hysterical cackling and raced from the building.
Pretty much everyone we had met in Italy while traveling had impressed upon us the importance of BEING IN ROME for the New Year, and we quickly adjusted our plans to make this happen. I won’t get into too many details about Rome except to say that everything you hear about it is probably true. It’s overwhelming. It’s amazing. It’s filthy. It’s more alive than most places you’ll travel. The people are wonderful. The people are rude. There’s always some sort of strike on. There’s more museums and sights to visit than you can see in a month let alone a few days. When more seasoned travelers would hear our itinerary, they’d warn us to not risk museum fatigue. We didn’t really listen. I will say, however, that we made sure to schedule a visit to the Sistine Chapel early in the proceedings so as to come to this bucket list sight with 100% confidence that we’d be seeing it sans museum fatigue. Of course, they’re smart over there at the Vatican. In my recollection, we had to choose a style of tour, and the tours were color coded with a painted line in the ground in front of you. You follow the color of your line to complete your tour. While there must have been a ‘Sistine Chapel Only’ line, we were probably over-ambitious. After all, we were products of the parochial school system. One of the only ‘must-do’s’ on our list was the procurement of a rosary blessed by the Pope for mom. That was a non-negotiable.
Anyway, we slogged through cavernous rooms of tapestries and goblets and vestments until finally coming to the crown jewel of our tour. I steeled myself to be blown away. And then? We’re ushered in and the interior is miniscule. Positively tiny. Plus, they cram it full of people shoulder to shoulder. Then, every time someone said something - anything – a frustrated guard/docent shushes that person/the entire crowd. For me, the shushing was far more distracting than the awe-filled whispers of the visitors. The chapel was still undergoing renovations at that time, so it was actually pretty spectacular to see some of the unrestored parts of the ceiling alongside the restored frescoes. But overall we were kind of bummed to be herded like so many cattle for approximately 5 minutes, and then hustled out. WTF. It was better to see it in a book.
Anytime I write down my stories, I’m conscious of one thing. My memory is likely riddled with minor and major inaccuracies. If you ask Erin to tell this same story, she glosses over all of the drinking bits and the chatting with other traveler bits and the anecdotal bits and she focuses on the fact that she was on a mission to save me from my unhappy life in the Czech Republic. We both agree that I passed out on a stairwell in Venice. And it turns out that alongside of all the fun I was having that I was actually acutely homesick. But it really had very little to do with home and more to do with the fact that I was unprepared to teach the kids I had signed up to teach and I was looking for a way out. These were not naïve peasant children who were dazzled by my being American. They were privileged high school students at the premier language school in the country and they had a better technical grasp of English grammar than I did. Many of my students, some of them the sons and daughters of diplomats showed up for class with laptops in arm (which was not as common a sight in the States at that time either, I might add). I had dinner in a few homes fancier than any home I have ever been to in the States to this day. I showed up for my first teaching gig under-prepared and overconfident, thinking I could skate by teaching them song lyrics and telling them stories about life in the States. I wound up learning pretty quickly that high school kids in Prague were assholes, but they were assholes just like high school kids were in the States. To add insult to injury they knew I was full of shit.
The parts of the homesickness that I wouldn’t trade even though they were tough at the time had to do with the utter disorientation of not speaking the language. You really don’t realize how privileged you are to be native speakers of English these days because (at least for now) English is the lingua franca. I remember attending a wedding of a colleague and not speaking a word to anyone all night and not understanding a word being spoken. I remember eating my lunch with the rest of the faculty every day and also not speaking a word of English while conversations went on all around me (sometimes about me) in Czech. It was a very lonely time.
I also remember another wedding in which I was asked to be a witness at the Old Town Hall in the center of Prague where the Astronomical Clock draws crowds all day. I wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. It was something the average Prague resident would have been excited to do, and I only had the privilege because the woman I lived with was an attorney (she had something to do legally with the wedding proceedings – both were foreign nationals, I believe). Anyway, these two foreigners had traveled to Prague on a romantic getaway and had wanted to return to marry there. And so they did, and I was a witness.
This year I’ve learned that many things I took to be Gospel were wrong. I’ve started to wonder what percentage of my memories aren’t true at all. Or are only true to me. I want to try and be better about writing things down when they happen to keep a record for our family. Also, the things the kids SAY are irrefutable, so I can take some comfort in that:
This is the year that Townes said:
‘Sorry Daisy!’ with a particular kind of glee. His own almost-four-year-old ‘sorry not sorry.’
This is the year that Daisy said:
‘MY mommy!’ while simultaneously and firmly tapping me on the forehead, staking her claim so there can be no confusion.
This is the year Townes said:
'Mama. Don’t make me laugh. I’m trying to be angry.'
This is the year Daisy sad:
‘Ummmm. I’m not so good at sharing’ when Gabriel asked her for a cracker.
These are the facts. The rest are my memories.